The British Army Watchkeeper
Updated 2022-01-21 to include a little more information on the crash of WK044.
The United Kingdom's Watchkeeper program has been fraught with delays, cost overruns, and crashes. However, it builds off of decades of unmanned aerial system (UAS) experience in the British Army, and the proven Elbit Systems Hermes 450. This article will cover the history of the British Army's UAS experience starting with the Phoenix, the current state of the Watchkeeper program, and detailing known aircraft crashes.
History of the British Army UAS programs
The BAE Systems Phoenix (formerly known as the GEC-Marconi Phoenix, prior to the merger between Marconi and British Aerospace to form BAE Systems in 1999) served with the 22nd and 57th Batteries under the 32nd Regiment of the Royal Artillery (RA) arm of the British Royal Army. Initially deployed to Kosovo between 1999 and 20011 as part of the NATO peacekeeping mission (referred to by the British as "Operation Agricola"), the Phoenix showed that the transition from solely artillery fire directing to intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) provided new benefits for operations planning.
The first Phoenix mission of the British element of the Iraq War (known as "Operation Telic") was flown on 19 March 2003 by the 18th Battery, 32nd Regiment RA2, the second British force element to cross into Iraq, with the 3rd Commando Brigade landing on Iraq’s Al Faw peninsula the same day. Starting in April 2003, the heat began to take a toll on the Phoenix, and by July they were no longer able to fly3. This led to a rotation schedule being established, with the Phoenix-equipped batteries rotating out in the spring and rotating back in the autumn4.
In the spring of 2004, the 22nd Battery deployed with the Lockheed Martin Desert Hawk I5, a smaller man-portable UAS that could support artillery fire directing but lacked the range or the endurance of the Phoenix. Unlike the Phoenix’s use for longer range surveillance, the low-power Desert Hawk I primarily provided perimeter surveillance of British bases6. The Phoenix was used regularly in support of coalition forces: in 2003 alone, there were 138 missions flown7, setting an expectation for British Army ISTAR operations to come. In May 2006, Phoenix flew her last flight8 after only 3 years of supporting operations in Iraq.
Soon after the introduction of the Desert Hawk I, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) selected UAV Tactical Systems Ltd (U-TacS) — the joint venture between Elbit Systems and Thales UK — on 20 July 2004 for the Watchkeeper program9. In October 2005, the Watchkeeper contract was finally awarded, totaling £317 million and initially committing to 8 years of work10. With the sunset of Phoenix operations in Iraq in 2006 and nothing to fill the gap, the UK MoD presented an urgent operational requirement to Thales UK for an accelerated delivery of Hermes 450 (H450) aircraft under the name "Project Lydian"11. Thales UK awarded a contract worth £55 million12 to their subsidiary U-TacS for delivery of contractor owned, government operated H450 remotely piloted aircraft for immediate deployment. The contract was announced as awarded on 7 June 200713, and "the first in-theatre flight of H450 was conducted on 17 June 2007"14.
The first Watchkeeper flight in Israel by Elbit Systems was on 14 April 200815, and the first full system test flight was in November of 200816. In September 2009, Thales UK delivered the Watchkeeper training facility in Larkhill, UK17. The first Watchkeeper demonstration flight was on 14 April 201018 from West Wales Airport at Parc Aberporth in Ceredigion, UK.
Meanwhile, Project Lydian's eight19 H450s carried on: reporting 84,000 total hours flown (as of October 201320) in support of the UK’s element of the war in Afghanistan ( referred to as “Operation Herrick”), as well as Operation Telic in Iraq. After repeated delays and setbacks — moving planned deployment dates from 201121, to 2012, to 201322 — Watchkeeper was finally approved to fly in March 201423. Following her first deployment to Afghanistan in August 201424, she executed her first flight in support of operations on 16 September 201425 and was declared fully operational for use in Afghanistan on 29 September 201426. Watchkeeper withdrew from Afghanistan alongside British forces with the end of Operation Herrick in October 201427, only two months after her arrival.
Current Watchkeeper Activity
Due to a need to increase the tempo of live flight training, but with UK winter weather preventing28 the RPA from flying, the live flying phase of training had to be moved elsewhere. Exercise Aries Spider was the name given to the first iteration of Watchkeeper training outside of the UK29; moving live flight training away from MoD Boscombe Down, UK. In January 201630, Watchkeeper deployed to RAF Ascension Island under 74 (Support) Battery, 47th Regiment RA as part of Exercise Aries Spider and executed her first flight on 28 March of that year31.
On 19 December 2016, the UK Secretary of State for Defence announced that 32nd Regiment RA was to be reduced32 and it's personnel redistributed to other units, including 47th Regiment RA. On 30 March 2017, Exercise Aries Spider concluded33, and their airframes and personnel made their way back to the UK. In November 2017 the UK MoD stated that 47th Regiment RA was the only unit operating the Watchkeeper34, and that Watchkeeper has flown 146 hours in active service (for Operation Herrick in Afghanistan starting in 2014), and thousands of hours in training and testing flights35. The Watchkeeper system was finally declared as having reached "full operational capability" on 30 November 201836, 8 years later than expected.
In 2019, Watchkeeper returned back to MoD Boscombe Down from RAF Ascension Island, flying her first sortie on 11 July37. Soon after, 47th Regiment RA returned to the UK, until deploying again to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus as part of Exercise Athena Rebus in September 201938. On 24 September 201939, the first Watchkeeper flight from RAF Akrotiri as part of Athena Rebus took place. On 30 September 2019 the exercise was officially announced, with the first battery to be stationed there for 6 months. Watchkeeper remains at RAF Akrotiri, providing the final phase of training to new pilots.
Watchkeeper aircraft are equipped with an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast transponder that allows for easy integration into civilian airspace. Each transponder is assigned a "hex code", a set of numbers and letters that can (most of the time) uniquely identify the aircraft. This data is openly broadcast and unencrypted, allowing a hobbyist with the correct hardware and software to collect it and analyze it. The Watchkeepers are assigned a Mode-S hex code in sequence, allowing us to extrapolate unknown hex codes from known. We can also determine registration, knowing which aircraft are stationed at Akrotiri and seeing that those registrations match to the two-digit suffixes of the flight callsigns.
Amelia @ameliairheart.@47RegtRA Watchkeeper RPA with probable registration WK037 on the ground at RAF Akrotiri, CY after making some patterns just off the coast. #ADSB #43C87B https://t.co/eadhSvGXke
Watchkeepers have been spotted on publicly-available flight trackers at RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus as early as November 2019.
Over her (currently) 11-year lifespan, Watchkeeper has been victim to 6 reported crashes. Of these crashes, only one took place outside of the UK. Here, we will go over the reported causes.
WK031 - 16 October 2014
WK031 crashed on final approach back to West Wales Airport, UK during a training flight by RA pilots at 11:13 UTC on 16 October 2014. A post-crash analysis determined that the Vehicle Management System Computer (VMSC) falsely detected a "Ground Touch" while within the 20-meter automated landing "Ground Touch" window. This led to the VMSC directing the aircraft to go into a "free roll", lowering the engine RPM and causing the nose to pitch down. This, in combination with human error surrounding proper procedures and misuse of the Master Override (MO) and a lack of understanding about how weather affects Watchkeeper, led to the crash. Analysis of the wreckage determined that the aircraft was damaged beyond economic repair, thus it needed to be scrapped.40
WK006 - 2 November 2015
WK006 crashed on final approach back to MoD Boscombe Down, UK during a training flight by RA pilots at 15:50 UTC on 2 November 2015. Much like with WK031, the post-crash analysis determined that the crew had pitched the nose down further than needed as part of landing procedures, which led to a false "Ground Touch" detection by the VMSC triggering "free roll", pitching the nose down further, then impacting the runway. This, in combination with human error in misuse of the Master Override, led to the crash. Analysis of the wreckage determined that the aircraft was damaged beyond economic repair, thus it needed to be scrapped.41
WK042 - 3 February 2017
WK042 crashed into the sea just off the coast of Llangrannog, UK during a flight by Thales pilots out of West Wales Airport, UK at 11:15 UTC on 3 February 2017. A post-crash analysis determined that the VMSC failed to correctly compute the airspeed due to sensor issues caused by prolonged exposure to cloud and precipitation. This led to the aircraft going to a stall, and finally crashing into the sea.42
WK043 - 24 March 2017
WK043 crashed into the sea just off the coast of Llangrannog, UK during a training flight by RA pilots out of West Wales Airport, UK at 10:58 UTC on 24 March 2017. A post-crash analysis determined that due to hardware failure, the primary half of the VMSC had to switch to the back-up, which could not resume due to Built-In-Test errors that had set the backup half of the VMSC to Standby mode. This led to the aircraft failing to communicate properly with the ground control station, and finally crashing into the sea.43
WK050 - 13 June 2018
WK050 crashed on final approach back to West Wales Airport, UK during a training flight by RA pilots at 16:52 UTC on 13 June 2018. A post-crash analysis determined that the VMSC failed to register ground contact and performed an auto-abort, increasing engine speed and taking off again. The pilot pressed the "engine cut" button twice, forcing the engine to shut down and leading the aircraft to glide and finally crash into a tree. Analysis of the wreckage determined that the aircraft was damaged beyond economic repair, thus it needed to be scrapped.44
WK044 - 14 October 2020
There is very little information publicly available about the crash of a Watchkeeper off the coast of Akrotiri, Cyprus, because there has been no released official report. All that is known is that the crash was during a routine training flight at RAF Akrotiri on 14 October 202045, and some damage was sustained to the aircraft. Analysis of open source flight tracking information shows there was only one tracked Watchkeeper flight at Akrotiri on the given day46, and the registration was determined to be WK044. Analysis of RA social media accounts shows that WK044 was spotted at RAF Akrotiri only two months prior. A MoD budget report47 reported a loss of £8.64 million, attributed to WK044. This report, in combination with flight tracking data, proves that WK044 is the aircraft lost on 14 October.
The Guardian @guardianBritish military Watchkeeper drone crashes during Cyprus training flight https://t.co/1wZG4pJRAF
Watchkeeper has accrued over 3,000 flight hours48 over her lifespan of 11 years and counting. As of July 2020, there were 45 Watchkeeper airframes in the British inventory, with 23 of those in storage for more than 12 months49. With only 6 reported crashes across those 3,000 hours, the Watchkeeper seems to be doing well. At the Defence and Security Equipment International exhibition in September 2015, Thales UK announced the development of “Watchkeeper X”, the armed export variant of Watchkeeper50. In July 2021, U-TacS signed a collaboration agreement with Romanian aircraft manufacturer Aerostar51, paving the way for the future of Watchkeeper.
Ripley, Tim. British Army Aviation in Action. Casemate Publishers, 2012, ch. 4
Ibid, p. 105
Ibid, p. 110, 130
Ibid, p. 130
Ibid, p. 133